Why I love Yoga nidra (or yogic sleep)
I used to have pretty much one method of relaxing and unwinding from work, stress and childcare; collapsing onto the sofa at the end of the day, watching TV and more often than not, pouring a glass (or two) of wine. And don’t get me wrong, that is pretty damn effective. And as you can see from my profile pic, I still do it. Occasionally. But I’ve cut down a lot since I started practicing yoga regularly around three years ago.
I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot more about the huge impact yoga has had on my life, but for now I’m focusing on the ways it helps me to relax. This has been huge for me as it has taught me ways to calm myself down and unclench without the need for props like cigarettes, alcohol or sweets, or distractions like the TV and my phone. To be clear, I’m not judging any of those things, or saying they’re bad – they definitely all still have a place in my life, except the smoking, which I have given up (twice; l'm human) – but sometimes I need a healthier way.
I practise yoga primarily with Aslihan, the Yoga Crow. Her classes encompass pranayama (breathing practice), meditation and relaxation as well as asana practice (the moves). The awareness that you gain from practising mindful breathing can be carried through into everyday life in ways that are incredibly helpful. I once used the full yogic breath technique when I felt my foot start to cramp up while driving, and the method I’d practised on the mat of ‘sending the breath to a part of the body’ came into its own as the deep breath calmed my jangling nervous system and averted the pain that I'd previously thought was inevitable.
A major emphasis of Aslihan’s classes is taking time to fully relax, and the way that this can lead to physical, emotional and spiritual healing. Practising yoga in general helps with this, but yoga also has specific techniques to help you slow down, switch off and allow healing to take place. One of the most accessible is Yoga nidra, or yogic sleep. One of the things I love about this is the fact that I can do it at home, in ten minutes if that’s all I have (or up to 35 if I have longer and want a deeper relaxation) by using an app or a YouTube recording. All you do is lay on the floor in Savasana and listen as a soothing voice guides you through the relaxation. Nice and easy and clearly a chill-out; you're just laying on the floor. And at first you may not feel that the practice has done much more for you than simply that.
But if you keep doing it regularly, and particularly if you use the opportunity to set a Sankalpa (intention) for a way you’d like to live, or be, then it’s incredible how powerful this practice is. The science behind it is that Yoga nidra puts you into an altered state of consciousness that not many of us reach on a day-to-day basis. The guided meditation takes you down through various brain-wave states until you reach delta, a state of deep (but waking) relaxation similar to that experienced by patients in a coma, in which your body can restore itself. When you return to full awareness, it’s almost as if you can bring a little of that slowed-down full-bodied calmness with you into the craziness of ordinary life. And supposedly the deeply relaxed state you reach in Yoga nidra is as effective as several hours of actual sleep; a handy way of playing catch-up if, like me, you have children who disturb your night-time rest on a regular basis.
There are other yogic ways of exploring healing; restorative yoga and gong baths are also fantastic practices, and both of these are an occasional treat that I try to get to every now and then. But Yoga nidra can be done at home, whenever you have a short period of time to lay down and tune in. It’s one of the best ways I’ve found of looking after myself that has a clear effect on my mental state afterwards. I’m certainly not doing it daily, but am trying for weekly and occasionally more often. So there are plenty of evenings now when the wine stays in the fridge, the yoga mat comes out and one very modern brain acquiesces to the power of this ancient wisdom.